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New database shows how Russian tweets inflamed tensions around Charlottesville

One year later, we're finally learning about how Russian accounts targeted both sides during last year's violence.

Fake Russian Twitter accounts sent out thousands of tweets attempting to fan the violence surrounding Charlottesville. CREDIT: ANADOLU AGENCY / GETTY
Fake Russian Twitter accounts sent out thousands of tweets attempting to fan the violence surrounding Charlottesville. CREDIT: ANADOLU AGENCY / GETTY

As the one-year anniversary of the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia passed over the weekend, Rep. Tom Garrett (R-VA) hinted at one of the reasons last year’s tensions spiraled out of control so quickly: Russia.

As Garrett told CNN, he learned during a briefing with the FBI director that Russian meddling efforts played a role in “fomenting the flames of what happened in Charlottesville.”

Garrett didn’t go into detail about the specific types of interference efforts surrounding Charlottesville — he said that the information remained classified — but prior evidence indicated Russian social media efforts had hyped the violence in last year’s rallies. According to a BuzzFeed analysis from last October, the @Ten_GOP account, perhaps the most popular fake Russian Twitter account, “appears to have been one of many influential tweeters for the event.”

Of course, Russian interference efforts often seized on numerous moments of racial tension and tried to inflame divisions over the past few years, tweeting out misinformation or racist language during events from Milwaukee to Ferguson. And it’s not as if the white supremacists involved in last year’s bloodshed were shy about courting Russia; as Richard Spencer and his followers chanted a month after the 2017 rally, “Russia is our friend!”

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But a new trove of nearly 3 million tweets from accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, compiled by Clemson University professors Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, show just how extensive Russia’s Twitter-based operations were when it came to last year’s violence in Charlottesville. The tweets, first published by FiveThirtyEight — and compiled into a searchable database by Simon Willison, the creator of Datasette — not only confirm Garrett’s comments, but show a far wider attempt at stoking tensions than has been previously reported.

Tweeting toward violence

All told, there are over 6,000 tweets from fake Russian accounts in the new database that mention Charlottesville. The vast majority of the tweets appear to be targeting those sympathetic to the white supremacists who marched, and who sparked the blood-letting — or at least those who continued to support President Donald Trump’s assertion that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

Most of the tweets don’t appear to be organic, or at least original. Rather, they appear to be either retweets, quotes from officials and pundits, or headlines from far-right conspiracy sites like TruthFeed.com. Some of the tweets also push comments from outright white supremacists like Faith Goldy and Paul Nehlen. As some of these tweets read:

  • @Acaparella: #acapa Dinesh D’Souza’s Tweet About Charlottesville is VIRAL
  • @AbiIsSrosb: #abi James Woods Reveals the One Person Happiest With Charlottesville
  • @AFeelIutr: #ade Newt Just NUKED the Left’s Charlottesville Narrative!
  • @Amberrpar: RT FaithGoldy: #Charlottesville DOUBLE STANDARD: antifa allowed to march!!!
  • @Alexxdrtrr: RT JackPosobiec: Today Trump condemned violent groups in Charlottesville but the media forgot Obama never condemned violence by his support…
  • @AmConVoice: These protests are not spontaneous, they’re pre manufactured by OFA. Watch Sperry w/ @LouDobbs #Charlottesville
  • @Jusmasxtrt: #jud Evangelical Powerhouse PRAISES Trump’s Charlottesville Statement
  • @Alaxxatr: #aleex Milo Perfectly Explains Why the LEFT is Responsible for Charlottesville

Some, however, were entirely original, and ranged from blaming the brutality on philanthropist George Soros to former president Barack Obama:

  • @Andeerlwr: #GeorgeSoros funded group, ANTIFA Created Violence to Provoked Extreme-Right into Aggressive Reaction! WHY? #Charlottesville
  • @CadDeetrs: #cadens Bombshell Report : Charlottesville Car Terrorist Is ANTI-TRUMP?
  • @Allberrtoss: ANTIFA racist thugs can have protests but when the other side does the thugs show up to STOP it #Charlottesville #fedup #fightingback
  • @Andeerlwr: The .POTUS & #TrumpMovement WON’T be silenced by #LeftistExtremist violence & #MSMpropaganda. #TrumpTrain WILL #MAGA! #Charlottesville
  • @AmelieBaldwin: Three explosions in ONE day‼ 1. #SeasideSemperFive 2. #Chelsea 3. #Charlottesville Thank you Obama!
  • @Mayluusstr: #may Obama Expresses His Sympathies on Charlottesville the WORST Way Possible
  • @Debesstrs: This man GEORGE SOROS owns the Charlottesville scenario✔ DEMOCRAT KKK David Duke paid & supported by Soros ANTIFA
  • @Rh0lbr00k: NJ, NYC, now Charlottesville. Unrelated, I’m sure. Back at the WH, Obama’s not home. Hillary’s counting her money/resting. Obama’s America.

And these weren’t simply small-scale accounts pushing these messages. Some of the most popular fake Russian Twitter accounts thus far unearthed played a role in stoking tensions, such as the aforementioned @Ten_GOP account, which, with over 140,000 followers, wrote that they were “Watching America destroy itself.. #Charlottesville”.

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Other prominent fake Russian feeds also added their voices. As the @Pamela_Moore13 account, for instance, tweeted out to nearly 70,000 followers, “Who invented white nationalism? The Democrats. And black nationalism? Ditto. So don’t try & blame this on the GOP #Charlottesville.” @TheFoundingSon, which had over 40,000 followers, also wrote, “#BlackLivesMatter: ‘I hope they kill all the white babies’ But conservatives are domestic terrorists ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ #Charlottesville”. 

Agents of chaos

While the stark majority of the Charlottesville-related tweets in the database appear to be trying to reach those on the right, or even far-right, end of the American political spectrum, a number also aimed at Americans opposed to white supremacy. That is, Russian accounts didn’t aim simply at one contingent; instead, they did what they could to egg on Americans of all political stripes.

Many of those tweets aimed at anti-racist groups were original in content, rather than links to the conspiracy sites the Russian accounts pushed toward those on the right. As some of these tweets read:

  • @BrentMcClure275: Let’s be clear: this violence in Charlottesville is an act of domestic terrorism, perpetrated by a hate group mobilized by Donald Trump.
  • @Emelddtrs: Another angle of the car running over protestors in #Charlottesville. This has no place in America!
  • @Hunterodddom: They were literally chanting “Heil Trump” in #Charlottesville.
  • @BaoBaeHam: THIS IS A TERRORIST. THIS IS WHAT THE FACE OF A TERRORIST LOOKS LIKE. DEAL WITH THE TRUTH. WHITE SUPREMACY IS TERRORISM. #Charlottesville
  • @CovfefeNationUS: The same people demanding justice for #KateSteinle are the same ones who were silent when Heather Heyer got ran over by a Nazi in Charlottesville. Hypocrites.
  • @KaniJJackson: Nikuyah Walker has become the first African-American Mayor of Charlottesville, VA. Congrats!!👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾
  • @PeytonCashout: White people of Ohio – we are not absolved from the heritage of the confederacy or of slavery. We are complicit. #Charlottesville
  • @YouJustCtrlC: I woke up to an email from my CEO condemning what happened in Charlottesville. Thankful for where I work.

And much like the tweets pushing pro-Trump conspiracies, some of the most prominent fake accounts on the left pushed messaging around Charlottesville — some of which used inflammatory language in attempts to exacerbate tensions. The @BlacktoLive feed, which had nearly 30,000 followers, shared with followers that “#Powerful 89-year-old Marianne Rubin came to protest and stand in solidarity with #Charlottesville”. The @BlackNewsOutlet account, which had over 40,000 followers, even wrote that “Charlottesville Protesters chanting: ‘white lives matter’, ‘you will not replace us’,’blood and soil’ Today marching, tomorrow genociding us”. 

Reach and range

There is no indication that these Russian accounts played any role in organizing the Charlottesville-based rallies, or explicitly encouraged the white supremacists to commit violence. As with many other events — the 2016 election, most prominently — quantifying the real-world impact of these accounts is difficult, if not impossible.

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However, as the thousands of tweets show, Russian operatives took a keen interest in the violence surrounding Charlottesville — and the potential precedent it set, especially as it came to playing up existing divisions. And while we’re only just now learning about the extent to which these accounts stoked tensions, there are already signs pointing to the reach these accounts attained.

After all, during PBS’s write-up of last year’s violence, the outlet published a pair of tweets commenting on the bloodshed. One was from a photographer on the scene. The other? From the fake Russian @Ten_GOP account.